Creating Great Brands By Caring For People First

Published in Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 14, 2004

Much have been written about super brands like Coke or McDonalds, few are familiar with the success stories of new brands that have become market leaders in their segments despite tough times and competition. These include Whole Foods Market Inc., Container Store, Southwest Airlines, GSD&M and SAS Institute. Their success is based largely on a business strategy that perpetuates a mindset that when organizations take care of its people, their employees in turn do their utmost to take care of the company’s customers.

Once a small store in Austin, Texas, Whole Food Market® is now a $3.2 billion company that has become the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic products. Whole Food Market® has 156 stores in North America and the United Kingdom. Since 1998, it has been in the list of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to work for.

SAS Institute, a world leader in business analytics software based in Carey, North Carolina has been named six times as Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For In America. The same company has been acknowledged thirteen times as one of the 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers. Moreover, it was featured as a Best Place To Work For in the Oprah Winfrey show.

GSD&M Advertising based in Austin, Texas was named by Adweek as Southwest Advertising Agency of the Year seven times and was recognized in 1999 as the Advertising Agency of the Year.

Dallas-based The Container Store® is America’s leading retailer of storage and organization products with company sales of $335 million in 2003. For five consecutive years, The Container Store® has been named either as number 1 or number 2 in Fortune’s Best Companies To Work For.

Southwest Airlines is 2004 America’s Most Admired Company. It is the United States’ only major short-haul, low-fare, high frequency, point-to-point carrier. In 2003, with sales of $6billion dollars, it has remained to be a profitable airline, avoiding layoffs despite the 9/11 crisis.

People First

Aside from being cited several times as Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For, all have commonly grounded their success on a workplace culture that loves its people well, resolute in the belief that when organizations put people first, company employees do a better job and put their customers first. This results in profits simply flowing. John Mackey, Founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market could not have put it more succinctly when he stated, “In a lot of ways the retail business could not be more simple. All you have to do is to make sure team members are happy. They make the customers happy and the customers make the shareholders prosperous”.

Culture Brand

Following are key insights that drive a business and marketing strategy based on branding culture.

Create an Employee-First Culture. Culture brands are grounded on an employee first culture where an organization anticipates and addresses employee needs and wants, not just customer needs. Jim Goodnight, co-founder and CEO of SAS Institute believes that the more an organization helps employees focus better in their work, the greater are the results that they can
achieve. Goodnigh believes that people are the company’s most valuable resource. Thus, Goodnight is determined to hire the best talents, get their creative juices flowing and retain them by building a company committed to life and work balance. When SAS was just a start-up, most employees were women of birthing age who eventually decided to stay home as the babies came. Aiming to get good talents back, Goodnight provided day care, which encouraged a lot of new moms to go back to work. Today, SAS has a lot of perks designed to help women balance their family and work. Among its generously subsidized benefits include access to two onsite child care centers; wellness programs at its 77,000 sq. ft. recreation and fitness facility along with free personal trainer services, yoga classes, dance studio, tennis courts, putting green, Olympic size swimming pool; free round the clock care and medical treatment at the Health Care Center; fully paid kid days where parents can stay home with a sick child or attend milestone events; flexible workday schedules; and other high-touch employee
benefits for everyone like regularly delivered fresh fruits on Mondays and M&Ms on Wednesdays.

Asked about the seemingly extravagant perks and benefits, Goodnight remarked, “It’s the way it must be. I want an environment where people enjoy working, where ideas pour out of their heads and into a computer screen”. Goodnight realizes the challenge of staying ahead of competition and sustaining innovation. He understands that creating software is an intellectual job that needs an environment that inspires creativity to better serve its customers.

Today, about 17,000 clients worldwide in every major industry use the SAS system. It is installed in 98 of the Fortune 100 companies, in more than 3,000 universities and nearly every major government agency in the United States.

Culture brands respect talent and expertise; and encourage employee
 Culture brands recognize expertise and great talent. They are not afraid to hire people who are better or the best in areas where the present employees are not. They understand the organization’s weaknesses and are not afraid to surround themselves with people whose strengths they do not have. Best of all, culture brands continue to create opportunities that will help employees realize their full potential. These brands believe that people are not an expense but great assets and resources. Moreover, they recognize that a person who is skillful, experienced and knows what he is doing can cover great distances faster and easier than a determined but highly inexperienced and
unskilled person in the same situation.

Encourage accountability and empowerment. Culture brands foster a lot of trust and mutual respect among its workforce. Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines’ Chairperson declared, “You build self-confidence when you give people the room to take risks and you give them the room to fail. You do not condemn them when they fail, you just say ‘that’s an educational experience and we’re going on from here’. We’ve just spent a good bit on your education, we hope to see you apply it in the future”. No wonder, Southwest Airlines has more than a hundred heroic stories of employees who have extended more than a helping hand thus, earning the company millions of customers for life.

Foster knowledge, encourage open communication and information and allow candor. While culture brands encourage accountability, they make sure that along with accountability come huge investments in acquiring and updating knowledge base, lots of skills training and business literacy. For example, Southwest Airlines and Whole Foods Market make it easy for employees to understand revenues and costs as these translate to net profits through engaging, creative presentations of financial data in posters, websites or through intranet. Likewise, information and open communication is encouraged and even acknowledged across all levels. Southwest Airlines generated a lot of savings, guaranteed job security and remained in profitable existence thus, continuing its service to customers not without a lot of help from its employees who care about the airline because they believe Southwest does the same for them. One heroic feat is that of Southwest Airlines maintenance mechanics Rick Denny and John Garamman who saved the company $5.5M in California when they personally undertook the job of converting gasoline powered tugs to electric at a reduced cost of $27,000 compared to the original conversion cost of $90,000 each. This was after the State of California mandated all airline companies to use ground equipment powered by electricity instead of gasoline.

Move from Function to Purpose-Driven brands. Culture brands have transcended from being functional and emotional products and services to become cause-oriented and purpose-driven: rallying employees to greater commitment to the organization, a larger than life burning platform and ennobling mission. For example at The Container Store®, it is no longer about marketing boxes, cartons or shelf organizers but about “providing customers better lives by giving them more time and space”. Likewise, Southwest Airlines is no longer about on time flying at cheaper prices but about “fun and freedom” while Whole Foods talks about a “pleasant, helpful workforce committed to a healthy environment, healthy food and serving the customer”. Culture brands inspire commitment among employees by making them feel like heroes while they realize how important their individual contributions are.

GSD&M moved to top class by representing and helping build brands of purpose. CEO Roy Spence admitted, “We can’t create purpose, we help brands discover it and bring it to life and that’s what we are gifted at. If a brand does not have a purpose, we don’t want to represent them”. Today, GSD&M’s competitive advantage is in creative purpose-based branding.

Culture brands are fun and spirited brands. Culture brands have lots of fun, spunk and spirit. Fun brands are not restricted by bureaucracy, old world structure or dreary, boring environments but are fired by passion, imagination, creativity and lots of productivity.

GSD&M is housed in Idea City in Austin, Texas. Its 3-storey, 137,600 sq. ft. building complex has a movie theater, a $4,000 sq. ft. studio as well as war rooms for clients. Roy Spence, GSD&M CEO declares, that the goal is to create the most imaginative, eclectic, most creative, energetic environment in the U.S. The agency has rooms decorated like Hollywood sets to inspire agency people and clients, a diner serving soda fountain treats, a bookstore where coffee is served, a backyard with desks, swings and picnic tables. It has music to go with the mood and every place of the complex – jazz in the bookstore, golden oldies in the diner and country music in the backyard.

These six brands are but just the tip of the iceberg of many other products and services that have leveraged on culture that loves people to build a brand. They have made it a time when competition is highly tough; in most cases, these brands represented a late entrant in a mature market or a pioneering product or service in a new market. Even with the latter, they faced huge challenges with greater disgrace and humiliation than if they had done what other competitors are simply doing. Ironically, these brands did not fail when they banked on culture and people as their leveraging business and marketing strategy.